Black Friday protest at Walmart

The Thinker by Rodin

Remember this post? Well, probably not. Anyhow, in it I promised to try to eke revenge against the retailers of the world for the shabby way I was treated when I was a retail worker (1978 to 1980) for the now defunct Montgomery Ward Corporation which today is even worse. Now that I am retired, lack of time was no longer an excuse, so I made a note on my calendar to attend a Black Friday protest at my local Walmart (Sterling, Virginia in my case) to protest their appallingly low wages and working conditions.

Signing up was easy. I was already a member of Making Change at Walmart, the site to go if you are not a Walmart employee but want to support their cause. I get regular emails from them and have even made a couple of contributions to their strike fund over the years. I was urged to find a Walmart Black Friday protest near me, so I simply filled in the web form and marked the date and time on my calendar. For several years now, the Our Walmart campaign has targeted Black Friday for protests because it is the busiest shopping day of the year. This year a record 1600 store protests was planned.

Thus far my protesting had been confined to mass events on the national mall. This kind of protest would be a lot different. The number of protestors was likely to be small and Walmart would doubtlessly be on the lookout for us. Protest rules were pretty murky, but seemed worth whatever minor risk it entailed. This is after all Walmart: the nation’s largest, nastiest and stingiest employer. Every year they find new ways to screw their “associates”. Among their egregious tactics over the last year were requirements to buy their own uniforms, canceling health insurance for certain part time employees (doubtless few could afford it in any event), cutting the hours of workers (leading to predictably long lines at cash registers and empty shelves) and erratic schedules. All this for an average wage of $8.80 an hour and where you might get an extra dime per hour the next time your performance was reviewed.

With several weeks of notice, I wanted to see if I could convince any others to join me. Notes on Facebook did not turn up any nibbles, so I sent a note to Paul, chair of the social justice committee at my local Unitarian Universalist Church. He agreed to sponsor the protest for our church. I made sure announcements were posted in the church bulletin and hoped a few members of my congregation would join me. We have less than 200 members, so I kept my expectations modest. Fortunately for me, it got the attention of certain influential women at the church (a.k.a. the Knitting Circle, which my wife attends) who were also suitably outraged and started making protest signs. On protest day, eight of us with signs in hand were ready to protest.

However, our protest organizer weaseled out. Early on Black Friday morning we found an email from him in our inboxes. He claimed insomnia the night before and canceled the event, but he did encourage anyone that wanted to to come out and protest. We took him up on it.

I confess it was hard to get in the protesting spirit when the temperature was in the low thirties with gusty winds, but we were ready. We met in the church parking lot, collected our signs and drove out to the Sterling Virginia Walmart. As we moved toward the entrance we encountered an older couple from Illinois in town but with signs. We were it, apparently, but at least with ten protestors we got into the double digits.

Black Friday protest against Walmart's labor practices at Sterling, Virginia store
Black Friday protest against Walmart’s labor practices at Sterling, Virginia store

For 10 AM on a Black Friday, there weren’t many people going into or out of this Walmart. We stood silently outside the Walmart entrances, being careful not to impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Occasionally we got a toot of a horn or thumbs up, but mostly we stood and shivered. We had a feeling though that it would not be long before Walmart management noticed us. We were prescient. After about ten minutes, a Walmart security officer told us we were on private property and we could only protest on public property. He pointed us to a hill at the far back end of the parking lot. Dutifully we walked back there. This was not an ideal location, but it was convenient to incoming traffic so we stood there with our signs and waved them up and down as cars went by.

Apparently we were not far out enough. After fifteen minutes or so we found we were observed by officers in two cars from the Loudoun County sheriff’s office. Eventually an officer approached us with the Walmart store manager. We patiently explained we were directed here by their store security. But, no, we were still on private property we were told. Walmart owned all of it. Some sort of conglomerate of course typically owns shopping centers, so it is in theory all private property. It’s pretty clear that Walmart wanted us way out of the way, like outer Siberia if possible. The closest truly public property, we were politely informed, was a median strip on Nokes Boulevard, which led into the parking lot.

And so we shuffled out there with our protest signs, dodging aggressive traffic to do so. We got the occasional thumbs up and toot of a horn in support, but mostly Walmart had gotten us out of the way, which is probably the strategy it emulated at many other stores. Had we had more protesters, perhaps we would have been harder to dislodge. After about an hour we ended our protest and moved on.

Nonetheless we were in reasonably high spirits. Without professional organization, we didn’t know what to expect or what was legal, but Walmart’s response felt very scripted. The store manager was never angry with us, but after the event one of our crew took a few of our signs into the store, and tried to give them to the store manager. She was intercepted by an assistant manager, and told she was unwelcome in the store, and ordered to leave.

Making change at Walmart is hard, not so much for us outside protesters, but certainly for Walmart employees who join the Our Walmart movement. They frequently suffer illegal firings or reduced hours. They are much braver than we were. We were just testing the protest waters, but I think I know where I’ll be next Black Friday. And hopefully we’ll be better-organized next time, and our organizer won’t use the weasely excuse of insomnia for not showing up.

As a practical matter, real change is happening in two fronts. First, many states and communities have realized that since retailers won’t raise wages and the federal government won’t, they must. So cities like Seatac in Washington State have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour. In Northern Virginia, $15 is a living wage, but just barely. Those Walmart workers earning $8.80 an hour or so at their Sterling store are probably working a couple of other part time jobs just to get by. They may very well be getting some government assistance, which means your taxes are subsidizing Walmart and other retailers scandalously low wages. More recently, the city of San Francisco passed a retail workers bill of rights. It requires employers to make up work schedules for their part time employees two weeks in advance, helping to give them some predictability to their schedules. This addresses the sad reality that part time work these days does not supplement other wages, but is what many workers try to live on.

Do not assume that minimum wage workers are mostly students living at home and thus it’s okay to pay the $7.25 an hour. The average age of a minimum wage worker is 35. These people are hustling simply to survive in poverty. They deserve a living wage and better working conditions and hopefully just one job so they get some downtime. It’s quite clear though that Walmart will continue to frustrate and obfuscate attempts at justice for their employees until the price becomes unbearable, i.e. it seriously affects their profits and sales. I will do my part to make it unbearable.

Here is how to really end the war

The Thinker by Rodin

According to an email I received today from ImpeachBush.org, approximately a hundred thousand antiwar protesters descended on Washington on Saturday in a mass protest to end the Iraq War. Most likely, the actual number was half this but it is hard to say for sure. While the crowd was undoubtedly large, it did not exactly fill the Mall. In addition, as usual the main targets of their protest were out of town. Bush was likely at Camp David. Cheney was at his usual undisclosed location. Most of Congress had vacated by Thursday anyhow, which is when their weekend usually begins. So the antiwar crowds demonstrated peacefully with largely only police and a small collection of noisy counter protesters to hear them. A few hundred protesters were arrested for sitting of the front lawn of the Capitol. While press articles about the rally were plentiful, they generally appeared well inside the A section. The demonstrators themselves apparently felt a little let down by the lack of a larger turnout.

Where were the Vietnam War era crowds? Yes, there was noise. Yes, there were speeches. Yes, there was Cindy Sheehan and Ramsey Clark at the podium. There were people from International ANSWER who had organized the protest and many mostly preprinted protest signs available for protesters to hoist and wave. Yet somehow, rather than seizing the nation’s attention the event was felt more like a footnote.

I did not to attend. I retrospect I should have, but frankly it dropped off my radar. I probably get a dozen emails like it a day and for some reason this rally did not stand out. From the sound of it, the protest was somewhat smaller than the march I did attend nearly two years ago. Many of the same speakers were at both rallies. Cindy Sheehan, then someone brand new to the protest movement, spoke passionately about the pointless loss of her son Casey in an unwinnable war. Ramsey Clark spoke eloquently about the need for Bush’s impeachment for his war crimes. There was certainly energy in the crowd on that day two years ago. I suspect the same was true during Saturday’s rally. Yet two years later, this and other rallies are not enough. While the tide has turned in the court of public opinion, the war drags on. It continues even though the people who want to end the war now control Congress.

Perhaps that is how these things go. Large antiwar protests during the Vietnam War did not materialize in size until 1968 or so. While I was too young to attend these rallies, I did watch them on the news. By the standards of that era, Saturday’s protest was simply anemic. Perhaps as a consequence today’s protests seem to have less impact.

Why is that? Is it that people are less upset with the Iraq War than the Vietnam War? Is it because the movement still has not developed a full head of steam? Vietnam did not involve troops in any sizeable level until 1963 or so. In that sense today’s antiwar protesters are faster and more agile. They are able to mobilize sizeable crowds much more quickly. Tools that were unavailable back then, like the Internet, no doubt have helped.

Still, the antiwar protests to date have paled in comparison to those of the Vietnam War. It is not as if some Iraq War protests have not come close. A protest shortly before our invasion nearly filled the Mall. Downtown Manhattan was overwhelmed with protesters during one major antiwar protest. These rallies though were the exception rather than the rule. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, campuses were regularly overtaken over by protesters. Protesters barricaded the Pentagon. Workers literally had to step on them to get to work.

The Vietnam War though had a few crucial differences compared with the Iraq War. Draftees largely fought the Vietnam War. This war is being fought entirely by volunteers. Moreover, these recruits come disproportionately from rural and conservative areas. During the years of the Vietnam War, people you knew personally died over there. Mostly people who did not want to serve fought the war.

When only those who choose to fight a war are sent, it is harder to feel the pain. I read in the newspaper of people in my county who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they are rare. I do not know one of them personally. Of the people I encounter regularly, I know of only two who have sons serving in these theaters. Although the more than three thousand American soldiers killed in over four years in Iraq in a sobering number, these numbers are relatively small compared with the number of soldiers who died in Vietnam. Thankfully, today we are better at saving the lives of the wounded.

While there are exceptions like Cindy Sheehan, most of those who are marching to oppose the war are doing it on ideological grounds, and not because they have been personally affected by the war. While polls show that a majority of Americans want the war to end, feeling this way and actually by taking action to end it are two different things. Because I live near Washington, attending that rally two years was not that big a deal. Had I lived a bit further out I am not sure that my outrage would have been large enough to find the energy to attend.

The downside of fighting a war with volunteers is that you do not necessarily have enough soldiers to fight the war on the scale needed to accomplish the mission. Yet there is an upside. Aside from likely having a better class of soldier, because citizens are less vested in the war it can be harder to stop. When the War on Terror started, President Bush told us not to change our habits. He told us to spend and act as if the terrorists had never hit us. We took his advice to heart. The images of the burning Twin Towers soon faded. The War on Terror become more of an abstraction that a reality. Supporting the troops meant putting stickers on the back of your car and of course not raising your taxes to pay for the war. If you had to pay additional taxes for the war, you might have felt more attached to its outcome. Instead, only the patriotic or desperately poor had to actually put their lives in danger.

This war can be stopped, but it will likely require much more direct engagement from those of us who are against it. Contribute what you can in money. Regularly write your senators, representatives and newspaper editors to let them know how you feel. When they are in your district, take time to attend events where you can question them. Speak to power.

These things, however good, are simply not enough. Take the time to attend antiwar rallies. You need to feel vested in changing the course of the war, and you will not feel that way writing checks to MoveOn.org. Not all of you can make it to the nation’s capital, but there are likely rallies closer to home that you can attend. By attending rallies, not only will you find strength in numbers but also you will find motivation to keep fighting to end the war. You will understand that there is strength in numbers.

Only our politicians can end this war. Politicians will not end it until they believe they must end it or they will be voted out of office. An opportunity to vote them out is about a year away. In the meantime, they can demonstrate right now that they are willing to end the war. There are three ways this can be accomplished. First, Congress can rescind its war authorization. Second, it can pass a bill specifying a date by which all combat troops must be withdrawn from that theater. Or third, it can refuse to fund the war. Any of these actions can be thwarted by a presidential veto. Regardless they demonstrate real commitment from those who can do something about it. Sorry, but passing a bill requiring the president to come up with a plan for withdrawing troops indicates spinelessness, not commitment.

In short, the war will end when we hold accountable those who keep it going. No matter how much you may like your representative or senator here is what you have to tell them: I will vote you out of office unless you end it.

Our unstoppable energy

The Thinker by Rodin

I am a creature of habit. My weekends are normally sacrosanct. After a full week of work, I have a hard time just getting up the energy to pay bills and shop for groceries. Nevertheless, yesterday I found myself drawn, as if by magnetism, out of my bed and into Washington, D.C. for the large antiwar march.

I had an idea what to expect. In 2000, I took a number of junior high students down to the National Mall to protest at a gay rights rally. We paraded down Constitution Avenue and proudly held up our Unitarian Universalist banner to the cheers of many and the jeers of a few. One man carried a large wooden cross across the Mall. He lectured us on the evils of homosexuality. Whom would Jesus hate? I wished him a good therapist and wondered what twisted upbringing had caused him to hate so many people.

Yesterday the weather looked chancy so I brought an umbrella. The Metrorail train was filled with antiwar protestors. Activists were busy handing out flyers on the train. An obviously very young communist was informing us that we needed a revolution. He went on to say that there were many good things about Josef Stalin. I bit my lip and wondered if this naïve man knew that Stalin had killed as many men as Hitler, and maybe more.

This rally was sponsored in part by International Answer. They had their own agenda, and getting troops out of Iraq was just one part of it. I do not know whether to loathe or love International Answer. Most likely, the rally would not have happened at all without them. Usually, it takes the energy of the fringe to organize massive rallies like this. For this, the antiwar people should be grateful. However, half of their rally consisted of speeches on causes having little to do with the war on Iraq. Yes, I want to end racism but no, I am not for socialism. I was definitely sympathetic to their call for Palestinian rights. Yes, I think we should end our subsidy of Israel, much of which is used to oppress Palestinians and confiscate their land and water. On the other hand, when they wanted us to chant “Intifada forever”, I decided I had been at the rally too long. While I understand why armed resistance occurs, I do not support violence as a solution to oppression.

However, most of the speakers were good, although they added little illumination to the issues. Antiwar rallies are not about articulating subtle aspects of foreign policy. They are about demonstrating political power. There were plenty of simple chants and lots of noise. I worked my way to within fifty feet of the stage. Among the celebrities who spoke were the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cindy Sheehan. The most coherent of the bunch was Ramsey Clark, our attorney general during the Johnson Administration. He called for Bush’s impeachment. Indeed, many in the crowd toted Impeach Bush! signs. Clark made a convincing case for impeachment. However, he was clearly pissing into the wind. Bush has no chance of being impeached by this Congress. In the unlikely event that Congress turns Democratic in 2006 then we can talk about it.

Amtrak trains from the northeast were delayed by suspiciously timed electrical problems. There were also delays on some of the Metrorail lines. Consequently, the organizers of the rally delayed the march, to the disgruntlement of many in the crowd. “We came here to march!” many of them hollered. Instead, we got one speaker after another from the increasingly lunatic fringes of ANSWER. The crowd at the rally began to notice that marchers were queuing up on Constitution Avenue. So eventually, most abandoned the rally and joined in the queue. All the while overhead, a Navy helicopter kept circling us. I am not sure what they feared. One speaker remarked that the helicopter should be down in Texas or New Orleans helping hurricane survivors rather than keeping a paranoid eye on a peaceful crowd. Indeed.

So the rally left something to be desired. I was beginning to wonder how many people would actually be in the march, because we had filled up The Ellipse but not much else. The clouds were getting darker and we occasionally were spattered with rain. It turned out that the rally itself was a sideshow, and the march was the main event.

My fears of an undersize crowd did not materialize. I do not know where all the protestors came from all of a sudden but they were everywhere. I waited for about an hour in a line just to get to a point where I could participate in the march. I picked up one of the many free signs and plunged in.

While the march was peaceful, it was still an angry crowd. I did not see anyone giving flowers out to the police officers. On the other hand, with no violence the police officers had little to do but observe. I got the feeling that, unlike during the days of the Vietnam protests, they were on our side. There were so many people that the march moved very slowly and often stopped altogether.

While we were certainly angry, there was still a lot of humor. Billionaires for Bush made a hilarious appearance on Pennsylvania Avenue. Many of the signs were not only barbed, but also funny. Some were even obscene. There were sideshows along the march route, which went up 15th Street and across Pennsylvania Avenue right in front of the White House. Where were all these people coming from? When we approached 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, I was able to look down Pennsylvania Avenue see other marchers going south on 12th Street, queuing up to protest. Buses lined the roads, but lots of others were coming from the Metro, or had walked in from Union Station.

The volume of marchers was truly staggering. D.C. Police Chief Ramsey said that he believed there were 100,000 marchers at least, and would not be surprised if there were 150,000 altogether. It could well have been more than this. It was hard to measure, but six hours of marching is a lot of marchers. The march continued into the night, long after I had returned home. Whatever the turnout, it was an awesome number of protestors.

The march was very much a cross section of America itself. From grandmothers to toddlers, from Buddhist monks to starry-eyed teens, they were all there. I was proudest of our youth, who were there in large numbers, vocal and full of energy. They needed to march in large numbers because unless policy changes they will be the ones most likely to pay with their lives for Bush’s lies.

Naturally, both our President and Vice President managed to stay out of town. However, our message was unmistakable: our war with Iraq is based on lies and has turned into an unwinnable disaster. It is not going to get better, so we need to bring home our troops home now before more lives are lost. As one sign put it, “Troops for the Gulf States, not the Persian Gulf!”

Our administration will, of course ignore this protest. Nevertheless, members of Congress had better wake up and smell the coffee. Reputedly, Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove calls the antiwar movement non-existent. If he still holds to this position, he is a fool. Even the few pro-war folks who stopped to heckle us must have left the march chagrined. Our overwhelming size and power can no longer be snippily dismissed. Moreover, we will keep at it until we have our troops home and our country back in the hands of people who have some clue how to govern.

I took my protest sign home with me. As I was exiting the Vienna Metro station, a middle aged pro-war protestor harassed me. “Do you know that you are helping Osama bin Laden kill American soldiers?” he lectured me. Goodness! Imagine that! That Bush would invade a country illegally and result in the deaths of nearly 2000 of our service members and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis did not seem to bother him at all. I guess our troops are safer in Iraq than they are in the United States. I did not engage him in conversation and he was soon onto heckling some other antiwar protestors.

This was a sad end to a day full of energy and excitement. If you were at the rally then the power of the people was palpable. We were one large unified mass and our beat rang out across Washington and the United States. Our current government is now riddled with major fissures, and we created another one yesterday. The people are already with us. It is inevitable that we will win. As the situation continues to devolve and the 2006 elections approach, congressional representatives will realize which side their bread is buttered on, and will find a way to end this pointless war.